UK

‘I thought they were being kind’: ‘Cuckooing’ victim reveals how drug dealers took over her flat

“There were times when I didn’t want to be here,” says a former drug user after her dealer took over her flat.

Sarah effectively became a prisoner in her own home, too afraid to cook or even shower.

Sky News has changed her name to protect her identity.

Sarah used crack cocaine and heroin from time to time. Her nightmare ordeal began when her dealer offered to meet her at her home when she wanted to buy drugs.

“I thought they were being kind, then slowly, but surely, they would turn up and they would come in at all hours of the night, in the morning without warning, sometimes with five or six people at a time,” she says.

If Sarah didn’t let them in, they’d scream outside until she opened the door. Soon her flat had been taken over by the criminal gang.

It’s a tactic known as “cuckooing” where criminals invade a vulnerable person’s home, often for dealing or storing drugs or weapons. The name is inspired by the cuckoo’s practice of taking over other birds’ nests.

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“When you’re on drugs you feel so low that you feel like these people are doing you a favour. You don’t realise that these people are preying on you because you’re so vulnerable,” says Sarah.

Her situation got worse and worse.

“For months I had no sleep because these people were in my home. I couldn’t go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea.”

Sarah was afraid they’d hurt her, but she also didn’t want to let them out of her sight in case they stashed weapons or drugs. So, she barely moved from her sofa, not even to wash. She stopped brushing her hair and it eventually became too matted to comb.

Sarah was afraid to tell the police or her housing association what was going on, scared she’d be arrested or evicted. She felt she had no one to turn to.

“I couldn’t tell my family I was using drugs again because I didn’t want them to be disappointed. So there was no way out.”

But thankfully Sarah’s horrific experience came to an end when the police raided her home looking for the criminals.

They took her out of the flat and moved her away from the area.

Sarah is now safe and off drugs, but she must keep her new location secret, even from family and friends.

“It’s hard, that support system’s gone. If I’m short of money I can’t just turn around to my neighbour or my best mate and say, ‘can you lend me a tenner till pay day?'”

Sarah had never heard of the term “cuckooing” until she spoke to the police, but she knew of other people who’d been targeted by the same criminals.

“People are petrified they will lose their homes, that they may be made homeless, so that puts that fear of reporting it to the landlord,” says Detective Superintendent Chris Packer of Greater Manchester Police. “But also over time, criminal offences are taking place, so they fear their own culpability in that.”

“It does hide sometimes in open sight; I think it’s quite difficult for people to understand what the problem is. So we’ve done a lot of work in the local community trying to make people aware of cuckooing,” he adds.

Vulnerable people who are cuckooed can also become involved with criminal or gang activity.

“Quite often, individuals can be, not asked, but tasked to look after prohibited weapons such as firearms, knives, drugs,” says DS Packer.

Sarah knows how hard it can be to seek help and hopes more awareness about cuckooing will encourage victims to speak out.

“Something needs to be done about this cuckooing, because it’s terrible, it’s not right,” she says.

Victims of exploitation can contact the UK modern slavery and exploitation helpline on 08000 121 700.

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